Keller Williams’ PettyGrass honors late icon with joyous jam in Jersey City

Much like that five-some, Williams' music is part-rock, part-country, and part-whatever he's passionate about. Watch video

92-og.jpgKeller Williams & The HillBenders.

For someone whose music has graced 23 albums, Keller Williams sounds like work is just a parcel of his never-ending enthusiasm. But it’s a parcel he knows and appreciates intricately. Williams, of the multi-genre, oft-string-based stylings, is bringing “PettyGrass” to White Eagle Hall, Thursday, Dec. 13, in a celebration of the music of Tom Petty via bluegrass with The Hillbenders.

Much like that five-some, Williams’ music is part-rock, part-country, and part-whatever he’s passionate about. He’s toured with the similarly eclectic The String Cheese Incident, the R&B group More Than a Little, and The Travelin’ McCourys.

“I’m all over the place,” Williams says, “and I’m very, very grateful for that because my main idea was never to stagnate in one specific area and it’s because of the people who buy tickets that allow me to play so many different kinds of music in so many different places with so many different people.”

Williams has also recently been touring his latest album “Sans” – which is also his first instrumental one. It’s a ways from bluegrass but most prominently shares two sounds with that genre – upright bass and acoustic guitar, Williams says.

“The Drop,” a song from one of Williams’ previous albums, is a beat-driven stew that shows how much he can wring together and refine separate elements.

“The very first thing that’s important to me is something I’ve based my career on — entertaining myself. That’s number one. I can’t be expected to entertain anyone else unless I’m entertaining myself, and ‘The Drop’ is definitely a tongue-in-cheek attempt at real acoustic dance music. What I did was we recorded that song with The Travelin’ McCourys out of Tennessee ….  I got them to record this song, and it was without beats or anything. It was like a straight, you know, string band-type song, even with the whole ‘choong-chic-choong,’ but there was no drumbeats.

“Because I couldn’t find a place for that song on any record, I used those tracks as samples and I kind of linked in them in like a DJ-producer sort of way. Like one spot, the banjo is all backwards, and one spot I’m running two notes of one instrument on the left and one on the right. … I’m very proud of that one.”

Williams’ PettyGrass project began three years ago, when he covered some Tom Petty songs for his hometown’s annual S.P.C.A benefit. He recorded voice memos – “very, very loose recordings” –  on his phone that were enhanced and put online as a tribute after Petty’s unexpected passing earlier this year. Those songs have been refined considerably since then.

Williams says his love of Petty’s music is probably generational. “In the late ’70s and ’80s’ and the early ’90s the radio was a little more prominent than it is today, and it was on and you just get to learning songs without really ever buying a record, and Petty was definitely on the radio when it was up … Being the bluegrass lover that I am and taking these songs and playing them and staying true to the arrangement but maybe double-timing the tempo and adding a lot more harmony to it, it turns into a big singalong.

“Petty had that gift of simple deep lyrics with very simple and catchy music that just really was a treasure,” Williams says, “and to redo these songs in a high-energy way with harmony it turns into a celebration.”

That element seems key to Williams’ music and has made his live shows an enveloping experience. Check out his cover of Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” with The Travelin’ McCourys on YouTube as an example. 

“I’m trying to offer an escape away from hard times,” Williams says. “I’m not trying to reflect any of this stuff that’s going on in the world, and I’m not trying to make people think about their hard times. I’m trying to make people escape for the 90 minutes or two hours that I have them for. I’m trying give them some visual image with a rhythm to kind of get away from the real world for a little while.”

Keller Williams’ PettyGrass featuring The HillBenders play White Eagle Hall, 337 Newark Ave,, on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 8:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be bought at and at the door, depending on availability.


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